Building South Bend shows yesterday’s prominence and tomorrow’s promise

At a news conference to announce Idea Week, an event created by Notre Dame’s IDEA Center to generate entrepreneurial buzz around the region, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg stepped onto the podium and pulled a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. It’s a list copied from “A Pictorial Souvenir of South Bend, 1919,” noting items manufactured in South Bend just after the turn of the 20th century.

As the mayor reads, eyes widen in the audience. Then mouths drop. South Bend was a city “heaving with activity,” as Buttigieg puts it. He gets about 25 items deep on the alphabetized list—just through the “C’s”—and stops: “Carpets, casket hardware, chandeliers, cigar boxes, clocks, confectionary, cornice.” The point is made.

Michigan Street, circa 1920-30
Michigan Street, circa 1920-30

The robust industry was located in a downtown that was much more dense than today. One quick way to imagine the scale of the change is to drive downtown and count the number of vacant lots or parking lots that appear in the middle of city blocks. More often than not, a building once stood there.

“Our estimate is that in downtown and the immediate vicinity, we’ve lost 70 percent of the original building stock,” said Elicia Feasel, Historic Preservation Administrator of South Bend’s Historic Preservation Commission. “South Bend was very dense at one point. You wouldn’t have had parking lots. Outside of alleys, you wouldn’t have had any breaks in a city block.”

A partnership between South Bend’s Historic Preservation Commission and Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Libraries and School of Architecture is giving new life to old South Bend. Launched in 2015 in celebration of the city’s 150th birthday, the Building South Bend project features a website (, a mobile app, a 3-D imaging project and a virtual reality simulator. The project has grown since its launch and as it does, it’s giving South Bend residents a better view of history and architecture students a real-world case study.

It started as a way to modernize old South Bend blueprints and files housed at the History Museum. Feasel reached out to the Architecture Librarian for the Hesburgh Libraries Jennifer Parker to see if a partnership was possible.

“I said, ‘Let me show you the Seaside research portal,’” Parker remembered. The city of Seaside, Florida, is considered the first “New Urban” community in the U.S. New Urbanism is a style that emphasizes walkable, connected, mixed-use communities and rejects suburban sprawl. The city was founded in 1979, and School of Architecture students have been researching its layout since 2010, providing storage and organization of the city’s archives. “(Feasel) was very excited to have something like that for South Bend, and it seemed like a no-brainer for us. We can partner with the city, we can create a resource that can teach students and we can create a tool for local cultural awareness.”

The 3-D printed model of historical downtown South Bend.
A close-up of the 3-D printed model of historical downtown South Bend.
The 3-D printed model and the Oculus virtual reality experience are housed in the Architecture Library in Bond Hall.

The site allows users to view information on South Bend’s historic buildings while navigating maps from 1898 and 1920. It also features information on historic districts, panoramic views and 3-D images of historic structures — both those still in existence and those that have since been demolished. The mobile app uses a phone’s camera to overlay historic structures over their current sites in downtown South Bend. Inside the architecture library, the old blueprints are being used to create an Oculus experience simulating old downtown and to build models using a 3-D printer. Those models are being placed on tabletop displays inside Bond Hall and at the South Bend History Museum. To ensure accurate placement, especially for buildings that are no longer standing, the project is using a grid taken from old fire insurance documents.

It all adds up to an immersive experience for viewers and for the students working on the project.

“I love the modern aspect with the Oculus and modeling and building something from an old image,” said sophomore Jessica Most, a native of San Diego. “But the archived files we have on each building are fascinating to look at, and there’s something unique in and of themselves that I really like working with.”

Michigan Street around Jefferson Street, 1968
Intersection of Michigan and Jefferson Streets, February 8, 1968. Photo credit to Lou Sabo.

Most has become something of a resident expert on South Bend history as a result of working on the project, a distinction earned by sharing tidbits of city trivia with her friends. “Multiple times,” Most said with a laugh, “they tell me to be quiet. I can’t shut up about it.

“Even outside my major, it’s very important that people understand South Bend is not just the Notre Dame surrounding. It’s its own being with its own history.”

The project is constantly evolving, and that is by design, Parker said. It started with one city block of downtown South Bend and now nine historic districts are included. Likewise the number of people involved has expanded, both in the School of Architecture, where 27 students are involved, and in the city. The new partnerships and participants have allowed Building South Bend to round out its features. Recently the project began to incorporate historical photographs of the interiors of turn-of-the-century buildings as well. It’s provided another dimension of the experience, especially in the virtual reality realm of the Oculus: Users can now not only view the city as it once was, but also view the inside of well-known buildings, such as the Palais Royale hotel on the north side of downtown.

But the project is more than wistful remembrance of a time when denizens of Chicago would travel to South Bend to see the latest theater and musical acts, not the other way around. For students like Most, it’s a chance to get a tangible sense of what goes into a building’s design.

“To understand how a building is created and functions, you have to understand the details that go into it,” she said. “It’s a great way to analyze a building, find its key components and understand why the architect did that so that when you scale it up to a model, it’s whole and can be understood.”

“Building South Bend changes the way you view the city. You spend so much time looking at the way it was, all you can see is potential in it.”

South Bend was a leading community in the national urban renewal movement of the 1960s and ’70s, during which a large number of buildings were torn down. In recent years, however, the momentum has changed. It may be irony or really good timing that a project designed to focus on the past is gaining notoriety when there is growing optimism about the future: Building South Bend was endorsed by the Indiana Bicentennial Commission as a Bicentennial Legacy Project in 2015, and Mayor Buttigieg has said more than $63 million in private investment in existing downtown buildings came in during 2017. As the future brightens, Feasel suggested the past can be a guide to the future. Preservation, she said, can be a tool for redevelopment.

“The Building South Bend project is a way for you to see that dense, traditional downtown, and also for developers to see their project in the context of what’s there and also take some clues from the way it was designed when it was whole,” she said.

“Our project is not designed to shame anyone for tearing down a building,” added Parker. “It’s designed so that we can study successful models of the past to build a better South Bend for the future, and how our students can learn from that and incorporate that into their own research and design and perhaps a greater appreciation for the city of South Bend.

“Building South Bend changes the way you view the city. You spend so much time looking at the way it was, all you can see is potential in it.”